It’s Time to Amend the Oath of Enlistment

By Benjamin Ordiway

On January 12th, the Joint Chiefs of Staff urged all service-members to “remain fully committed to protecting and defending the Constitution […].” The memorandum also commands service-members to “keep your eyes on the horizon.” Unfortunately, if you are looking toward the Capitol, non-scalable fencing and concertina wire currently mar that horizon.

Civil servants, military service-members, those holding political office, and the rest of the “We” in “We the People” must unite in stewardship to the Constitution if we are to have a functioning democracy. We owe it to our country to see the horizon as a vision of aspiration instead of desolation.

For those also in public service, now is a time to reflect on the oath we took. Often, when measuring our performance against our respective oath, our performance needs amendment. And while I have often personally found that to be true, when reflecting on the two oaths, perhaps this time it’s the oath that needs amending rather than the behavior.

Oath of Enlistment

I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

Oath of Commissioned Officers

I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God. 

I have taken both oaths. I took the former upon enlisting in the United States Army in 2004. After serving in Iraq, I entered the United States Military Academy and took the latter oath upon graduation.

I have often wondered why the Oath of Enlistment references the President, while the Oath of Commissioned Officers only references the Constitution.

Practically, the President does not and would not command enlisted service-members directly. Moreover, the President’s title of “Commander in Chief” is enshrined in Article II, Section 2 Clause 1 of the Constitution; specifying obedience to the President is superfluous when an enlisted servicemember professes allegiance to the Constitution.

Most importantly (and timely given the not insignificant number of military service-members—retired or otherwise—who participated in the insurrection at the Capitol), changing the Oath of Enlistment by removing the phrase “the orders of the President of the United States” would reflect more decisively the what rather than the who that is being served.

Though “tradition” is an unsatisfying answer, it is often the first obstacle hindering change and must be addressed. In 1789, officers and enlisted took the same oath. Then, sometime between 1830 and 1862, the Oath of Commissioned Officers dropped all reference to the President. As for the Oath of Enlistment, it too is a living document with at least four previous versions. It is time for the Oath of Enlistment to change once again.

To that end, I offer the following amended Oath of Enlistment:

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

Amending the Oath of Enlistment need not be a politicized initiative, though some will likely see it as a partisan snipe. This is a necessary, symbolic signal to those who might otherwise be confused as to the only North Star guiding our military institutions and service-members of all ranks: the United States Constitution. 

Benjamin Ordiway is a Civil Affairs Officer currently pursuing an M.A. in Philosophy at the University of Michigan. He enlisted as a Cavalry Scout in the Army in 2004 and received his commission as an Armor Officer from the United States Military Academy in 2012. You can find him at www.linkedin.com/in/benjaminordiway.

3 comments

  1. MAJ Ordiway,

    You could just add “lawful” to the portion on the orders of the President “and the officers appointed over me…” rather than jettisoning everything.

    We don’t have the luxury of every enlistee knowing, inherently, that the President (or his delegates) – despite being civilian – remains the constitutional authority over the military. Nor do we expect that private to have an acute understanding of the constitution. While today’s enlisted man tends to be much better educated than at any other point in history, it is far from a given. Sure, we could (and should) expand the scope and rigor of enlisted education, but budgets get in the way and they take the oath before assuming any such indoctrination. If we can reinforce some key points about the chain of command at the cost of a few words, what’s the real harm?

    • Thank you for the comment!

      Two thoughts:

      1. Why would any officer allow a service-member to swear an oath without both parties understanding every word of that oath and their implications? It would seem to me a moral imperative for any leader administering the oath to ensure “informed consent” like we would expect in any medical operation.

      2. To that end, in simplifying the oath by removing the reference to the President (which is redundant, as the President’s title of “Commander in Chief is already in the Constitution), we actually increase the likelihood that those taking the oath understand what they are swearing (or affirming) to.

      (CPT) Ordiway

      • CPT Ordiway,

        Apologies for the rank confusion, I’ve no idea why I made that error.

        I do applaud your stance as the ideal position, that everyone should be fully informed of the oath they take and that every officer delivering such would do their due diligence to ensure such.

        Yet, two decades of experience have left me less sanguine about that being realistic. Senior commissioned and noncommissioned officers still often struggle with the nuance within the Constitution, complicated by specific aspects of the UCMJ and the ever-growing body of regulations and customs that influence our interpretations. I know of a Sergeant Major who instructed service members being honored at a hockey game to NOT salute during the Canadian anthem (but to salute during ours), as even that august soldier confused a sign of respect with a pledge of loyalty.

        I am the last one to argue against a need for more academic rigor among the enlisted ranks, but expecting new enlistees to truly be fully informed about their oath, especially when their initial oath is taken during a mass ceremony at MEPS, seems a bit too optimistic.

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